In Seattle you have the Space Needle, in Paris the Eiffel Tower. In Santiago de Compostela, the number-one tourist attraction seems to be the Botafumeiro, the giant censer propelled on a pendulum swing by six rope-pulling stewards and spewing scented smoke in front of the altar before the final blessing, especially at SRO pilgrim masses. It's a sensation, hurtling on its trapeze like a death-defying circus artist or a space capsule out of control.
It's most of what you hear about. A couple from Holland here on holiday asked me during the Spain-Croatia soccer match tonight if I had seen the Botafumeiro yet. A fellow pilgrim and a Protestant complained to me that the Botafumeiro was "too commercial," and proved his point by standing with hundreds of other gawkers to snap still and video images when it swung into action at the end of noon mass on Sunday. When the giant, flaming ball was wrestled to earth by a courageous caped attendant, the cathedral broke into applause. Before giving us his final blessing, the celebrant made the best of an awkward moment by saying that he hoped we were applauding the Lord and not the Botafumeiro.
Earlier this evening, I got a new perspective on this phenomenon from a new friend, whom I will call Angel. A reader of this blog, he suggested that we meet when I was in Santiago, and we did so today at 5pm. It turns out that Angel is a professional classicist and an amateur art historian, and he proved it by giving me a fascinating two-hour tour of the cathedral. He showed me how it is really several cathedrals in several styles, all patched together with a logic of its own.
For example, the famous west-facing side, which arriving pilgrims lie down to admire, is really a Romanesque church with a baroque façade and two baroque spires added onto it several centuries later.
Another example is the less well-known double door facing south. It is Romanesque, but with iconography above it that was taken from several other parts of the cathedral and affixed to form an incomplete view of salvation history packed with small surprises. An angel lowering a crown over the head of Christ appears to miss her aim because in fact the two images were never designed to go together. You can imagine, Angel said, a stone mason trying to fit the pieces together like a child doing a jigsaw puzzle—and realizing the pieces were not from the same puzzle.
But the most striking thing Angel told me during his generous informal lecture was an anecdote about Pope Benedict. He said that when the Pope was in Santiago a couple of years ago, everyone was eager to see his reaction to the Botafumeiro. Some thought he would look up in wonder. Some thought he might even gesture approvingly.
Instead, our Pope kept his head lowered in prayer throughout the swinging, which lasts at least 45 seconds. He never looked, never flinched. He just waited for the censing to be done with, then delivered his blessing.
I have concluded, and this anecdote reinforces my conclusion, that it is impossible to make a proper judgment of the Catholic Church without having lived inside it seriously. Few have lived longer or more deeply inside the faith than Pope Benedict.
[NOTE: This series of posts on my Camino continues here.]